Monday, November 2, 2015

Baseball Humbles Superheroes and Sentiment

As the baseball world processes the World Series just ended—including the Kansas City Royals’ persistence, contact-hitting prowess, and relentless pressure on defenses—the New York Mets might consider whether they bought too much into the “Dark Knight” Batman superhero persona that their ace Matt Harvey has embraced and brings to the mound. After all, right or wrong, manager Terry Collins’s decision to yield to Harvey’s “no way!” demand that he not be removed after eight superlative innings in Game 5 of the World Series with the Mets nursing a slender 2-0 lead in an elimination game for them will be debated long into the winter, and then some. Rather than leaving the mound a conquering hero with a complete game victory to send the Mets and the Series back to Kansas City, Harvey failed to get an out in the ninth, the Royals tied the score, went on to win in 12 innings, and are now World Series champions.

Baseball Humbles Superheroes and Sentiment

Fifty years ago, with the 1965 World Series tied at two games apiece, Sandy Koufax pitched a complete game, 4-hits-allowed 7-0 shutout in Game 5 over the Minnesota Twins. No thought was given to him coming out of the game, despite the Dodgers’ big lead. Three days later, Koufax surrendered just 3 hits in another complete-game shutout to win Game 7 and the World Series. This time the lead was just 2-0, and despite pitching in near-exhaustion, again there was not a thought to bring in relief ace Ron Perranoski, whose 8 saves in September alone were critical to the Dodgers’ winning a close pennant race.

But that was a different time, a time when it was a given that self-respecting top-ranked starting pitchers finished what they started. Ask Don Drysdale (20 complete games in 1965), if you don’t believe Sandy Koufax (27 complete games and 336 innings pitched that year). These are different times, one where closers dominate the end-game, especially in must-win games that are close, like 2-0, in the last inning. In addition to their vaunted trio of young guns—Harvey, Jacob deGrom, and Noah Syndergaard—the 2015 Mets have a top-flight closer in the person of Jeurys Familia.

Harvey had not completed a game all year. He has just one complete game in 65 major league starts, a shutout in 2013. In today’s day and age, there is absolutely no disgrace to not finishing the game. Finishing games to protect a 2-run lead is the closer’s job. And moreover, while the presence of deGrom and Syndergaard meant Harvey would not be asked to pitch Game 7 on two days of rest as Koufax did in 1965, he would have been ready to do his best Madison Bumgarner imitation in Game 7—which surely the Royals would not have wanted to see for the second year in a row—if it came down to that.

But the controversy over his innings limits in his first year back from Tommy John surgery put Harvey in the middle of the argument between his agent and his general manager. Harvey’s awkwardness in handling the issue left a perception that he was more concerned about himself than his team, hardly becoming of the Dark Knight who would sweep away the Mets’ enemies. And so there was “no way!” Matt Harvey wanted out of that game, no matter that he had a Tommy John arm, had thrown over 100 pitches in the game, and Familia was warmed up and ready to close out the Royals so the Mets could get on their plane to Kansas City.

Sometimes, however, the interests of the team should take precedence over the macho posturing and desires of its best players, even the Dark Knight. That is the manager’s responsibility, and Collins acknowledged as much in his post-game remarks. With only a two-run lead in a game the Mets could not afford to lose, and with Familia—like most closers—most comfortable coming in to start an inning rather than to put out a fire not of his making, this was one of those times where, after his eight superb innings, it was time for Commissioner Collins to tell his Dark Knight:

We Metropolitans in Gotham are enormously grateful for what you have done to show these KC devils, who have drained our lifeblood with interminable paper cuts, that they cannot prevail. I realize they are not yet dead and buried, but it is time now for us to relieve you of the burden of finishing the job. At least for today. Rest assured, I will use my best man—Mr. Familia—to close this thing out. We will not lose this battle of Metropolitan good versus Royal evil, and we'll see what the next few days will bring. If we need you, O Dark Knight, to save the day on Tuesday or Wednesday—the day of the Final Judgment—to permanently vanquish these guys, I know where to reach you. And if needed, you WILL be called.

Instead, the Dark Knight insisted on finishing the job himself, and the Commissioner bought into it. “I let me heart get in the way of my gut,” said Collins.

This is the kind of thing where you just hope that everybody recovers from the ugly events that transpired. Especially that Matt Harvey, having put his Tommy John arm at risk, hasn't compromised his future and does not allow his stampeding his manager into an ill-advised decision to haunt him in the year ahead when his excellence will be needed for the Mets to return to the World Series.

And that Terry Collins be remembered for the superb job he did in guiding a team that was beset with injuries to key players and with virtually no offense worthy of the name for two-thirds of the season to an upset of the overwhelmingly-favored Washington Nationals in the National League East. Sure, the Nationals had their share of injuries, but the Mets overcame third baseman and team captain David Wright and catcher Travis d’Arnaud both missing more than half the season on the disabled list, a top-of-the-rotation ace, Zack Wheeler, missing the entire year with his own Tommy John surgery, as did lefty reliever Jerry Blevins, and would-be-closer Jenrry Mejia suspended for performance-enhancing drugs. Collins put the Mets in position to win it all—right up until he allowed the aura of the Dark Knight narrative, and sentiment, to get in the way of his better judgment.

Welcome back in 2016, New York Mets. Your opening day opponent? The Kansas City Royals.

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